The long-awaited European rover ExoMars – the first in the history of the continent – seems cursed. Problems with the parachute thwarted its originally scheduled launch in 2018. A coronavirus pandemic then prevented the launch in 2020. And now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has deprived it of a chance to take off in 2022. the latter delay feels particularly severe. “It was impossible for me to talk about this mission for weeks without tears,” said Valerie Charletti of the Laboratory of Atmospheric, Environmental and Space Observations (LATMOS) in France, which heads the rover’s underground radar team. After more than 20 years of planning and development, the fully assembled rover is awaiting launch at a plant in Turin, Italy. But it is increasingly likely that ExoMars will never take off at all. Representatives of the European Space Agency (ESA) are now considering whether to try a fourth launch, cancel the mission and move on. The damn rover can still be saved, but at what cost?
The Mars rover of Europe, named after Rosalind Franklin in honor of the famous English chemist who discovered the structure of the double helix of DNA, would be a significant step forward in the hunt for life on the Red Planet. While the rover NASA Perseverance, which is currently exploring ancient river delta inside the crater of Jezero, relies on a challenging capture and go Return of the Mars sample A program to deliver Martian material to Earth for astrobiological analysis, the Franklin rover will perform a direct search without the need to return a sample. It will also look deeper: with a drill it will reach up to two meters below the surface, where evidence of life is less likely to be erased by cosmic radiation explosions. (Neither Perseverance nor its close twin Curiosity rover is equipped to probe such depths.) “The ExoMars rover was built solely for astrobiology,” says Melissa McHugh of the University of Leicester in England, which is part of the science. team for the rover laser spectrometer instrument. “What lies beneath the surface of Mars has enormous biological consequences.”
If all went according to plan earlier this year, the Franklin rover would launch on a Russian Proton rocket in September before it was launched by the Russian Cossack landing platform in June 2023. But on March 17, 2022, after the widely condemned Russian invasion of Ukraine, ESA decided to sever ties with the country as part of a mission by suspending the Franklin rover indefinitely. ESA officials expect to officially decide whether to continue the mission until the agency’s ministerial meeting in November 2022.
Routes to the Red Planet
One possible way for the rover to reach the surface of Mars is through the United States through components and capabilities provided by NASA to increase the new ESA lander, which will replace the Cossack. “Our teams are working with NASA teams on the technical steps that need to be taken,” said Josef Ashbacher, ESA Director General. in an interview with SpaceNews in April. In a statement by email to Scientific American, NASA officials confirmed this search effort: “We have recently begun a joint evaluation of ExoMars mission options,” they wrote. “Once we learn more, we will incorporate this information into our plans.”
Alternatively (and unlikely), the mission route could still pass through Russia. Jorge Vago, a rover scientist at ESA, says a re-partnership with Russia to launch in 2024 will be the “fastest and easiest way” to get to Mars, given that the rover and its landing platform have already been built. But “as things go with the war, it’s very difficult to think it’s possible.” Given the obstacles to rebuilding such a partnership, Wago says the only real option for ESA is to build its own landing craft with the help of NASA. “It takes time,” he adds.
However, time is not entirely on the side of ESA. The Earth-Mars journey is easiest when both planets are in proper order, which happens every 26 months. Wago says a time-consuming process of creating and testing new equipment would deprive it of launch in 2024, but a possible launch in 2026 or 2028. ESA could potentially repurpose the parts it contributed to the Cossack launch vehicle, but Russian-made components – landing gear, heat shield, launch engines and more – will need to be developed from scratch. Engines are a particular problem because no European manufacturer offers ones that are capable of landing on Mars. Similarly, the ESA lacks the plutonium needed for a radioisotope heater to maintain the rover’s heat – something the US (or Russia) could provide. “So we ask NASA if they could contribute,” Vago says. “These are the negotiations we are holding now.”
ESA and NASA are already working together on the next steps for a joint Mars Sample Return program, with Europe tasked with developing a rover pick up samples stored in the Perseverance cache, as well as a spaceship to deliver these samples home. Wago says ESA may ask NASA to help with ExoMars in exchange for ESA recording its planned contribution to the sample return work. The situation is quite ironic: in the early 2000s, Europe and the United States had indicative plans to work together on a mission to Mars in search of life, involving two rovers that coincide in their scientific goals. But NASA pulled out in 2011, citing a lack of funding before announcing the concept of a mission that would become the multibillion-dollar Perseverance rover later that year. Another European component was the rover Franklin, and ESA was forced to turn to Russia as a partner. This experience has left a bitter aftertaste in many in Europe. “We were embarrassed,” said Chris Lee, a former chief space scientist at the UK Space Agency. “People were very annoyed.”
Oxia Planum or Bust
Mars rover Franklin will land in a region of the northern hemisphere of Mars called Oxia Planum. In this area is another ancient delta of the river, which is estimated to be 4.1 billion years old – hundreds of millions of years older than the geological objects that are now exploring Perseverance and Curiosity in their places. If the rover is saved, ESA is unlikely to consider sending it elsewhere. “We want to go to the site we have,” says Vago. “It’s weird. This would be the oldest place visited by a mission to Mars. This gives us a unique chance to look at the earliest minerals mined on Mars. ”
Another inconvenient possibility, however, is that ESA may reduce its losses and decide to cancel the mission. In addition to developing a new landing system and purchasing a new rocket, keeping the rover in perfectly clean conditions for six years will require significant investment. Even now, engineers must constantly flush the rover with argon to ensure it is maintained in the primordial condition needed to minimize the chance of infection by terrestrial microbes. Some experts are wondering whether it is better to spend these resources elsewhere. “Is it worth it?” Lee says. “Unless NASA’s discussions with ESA are aimed at bringing ExoMars out of the cold, I really don’t see what will happen next.” But David Southwood, a former director of science and robotics at ESA, says the agency should do its best to deliver the rover to Mars. “That would be my top priority on my wish list,” he says.
Of course, the fate of this rover, which has worried for so long, is likely to be delayed for months. This leaves the scientists working on the mission unsure of what their future holds. “If ExoMars is never launched, it’s a waste of our time and effort,” says Charletti. “We have been working on the instrument for almost 20 years [for the rover]. It’s absolutely disappointing. ” Currently, European scientists who want to see their first home-grown rover reach Mars can only wait.